Saturday, December 31, 2016

Day 2,301: Home


It was all mine. I didn't have roommates. My boyfriend had a key and was there often enough helping me take care of the building that the tenants thought he was the landlord. They thought that about him, not me, though I signed their leases, took their money, planted the flowers, helped to exterminate the apartments, handled their emergencies, tried to fix the industrial-sized boiler with a wrench and a blowtorch that one time. There was a liquor store and a payday loan store on the corner but there was also a bank and a bus line that took me to the green line or the blue line, however I felt that day, though I almost always walked, give or take the weather. The floors in the living room were beautiful but so lopsided my bookcases sloped sideways. The kitchen had counters but few cabinets and we danced in that kitchen since we were too broke to go to clubs. I would sit on the back stoop and watch the backside of the Madison street businesses. I could see men, always men, taking out garbage, shoveling snow, making deliveries. I didn't have legal cable but we spliced the wires that had been left behind and I got a few channels, because back then, that was possible. At 24 I broke my own heart and it was in that apartment that I had to learn to begin dating again, not having done it since 17. I kicked a man out of that place when he didn't want to use a condom, and that's one of the clearest memories I have of my first place of my own: me sitting on the couch in my bathrobe eating leftover popcorn, watching him incredulously walk out the door. I held parties there, albeit small ones. I tried to make friends with my neighbors as white people always did on TV, but I found that wasn't for me. When I left that apartment, my youth stayed behind.


I made $27,000 a year and was putting myself through grad school at night after working all day. Buying a condo didn't make sense, but I had saved enough money to do it, having no debt outside of $98/month in student loans back when interest rates were 7.5%. I found a mistake in the closing documents and wouldn't sign the papers until one of the largest financial institutions in the country gave in following my obstinate refusal to budge, and I was on their blacklist for years. I knew too much about the process. It was a second floor walkup, which means it was the third floor because this is Chicago and we downplay our struggles. When I had gallbladder surgery, my boyfriend at the time came over and walked down flights of stairs to help me with the laundry. There were two butler's pantries in the otherwise tiny kitchen and if I could have, I would have taken them with me to every place that came after. The condo had a shotgun layout, the only place I've lived as an adult that did not have a circular floor pattern. The building was vintage and I had no A/C, washer and drier, second bathroom or parking space. I eventually had a car while living there but I commuted by train and walked almost a mile home at 10 pm on weeknights after grad school classes ended. I rented a garage space a few blocks away and had to walk through dark alleys alone just to get home. I was an adult woman in that apartment, learning to have new boyfriends or lovers, throwing larger parties, refinancing and getting rid of my PMI. I didn't so much as paint in that place, and I made $50k on it by the time I walked out the door three and a half years later. I didn't walk alone; my fiancé came with me. He had moved in when we were 28, 7 months after we met, after we kissed for the first time in that shotgun hallway while he held some of my homemade banana bread in his hand. It was in the larger of the two bedrooms in that place--when I thought it might be better to leave him because he was being such a jerk--that he handed me a pearl ring he had hidden in his pajama pocket and said "I'm sorry, Kate, but I still want to spend the rest of my life with you. Will you marry me anyway?" That was one of many things I did anyway.


A few weeks after we closed, I turned 29, but 28 is precise and true. We negotiated the deal from Puerto Rico, where I had been sent for a conference, and my fiancé came along for fun. The house was an absolute mess in a neighborhood I had never heard of, on the far south side of the city. It was dark and dusty and the beds weren't even made. But there was ivy crawling cautiously up the red brick, beautiful windows, pine trees in the front, a huge expanse of back yard, a woodburning fireplace, and even a magnolia tree. We learned later that the couple who lived there had raised their family with the couple next door, and the husbands one day decided to "surprise" the wives with news of new construction built in the far south suburbs, and the couple who lived in our house almost got divorced, thus explaining why it looked like they weren't trying to sell the place, because she wasn't. It was 2004 and we paid too much and lost money on it in the end but not as badly as others did. When we came home from our wedding, it was still afternoon, and we opened the gifts we hadn't registered for in the living room of the first home we owned together. The day before the wedding, our car was broken into in our driveway. Both of our children came home from the hospital to that house. I designed and managed the rebuild of that kitchen and for that reason I sometimes miss it. We installed a new roof, windows, wiring. There was a steam shower in the basement, and towards the end of our time there, I sat on a stool next to that shower while my husband shaved my head with a bic and a can of barbasol. I became a mother there and with that I met other mothers. I will always remember lying on the couch in that house, pregnant with my son, trying to stay awake for the 2008 election results, and failing. When the phone rang and roused me from sleep, I knew before hearing who had called that he had won, that we would always be able to say that we lived on the south side of Chicago when President Obama was elected, just a handful of miles from where the first black President had once lived. But with hope comes the reminder of struggle and pain. I had cancer in that house--my world split from being the promise of young motherhood and the height of my career to something else entirely. With that, I couldn't feel much nostalgia for a place that held birth but also the possibility of death, new life but also the reminder of suffering. When we left, we didn't, because we couldn't sell. We became landlords, and I was crazy for suggesting we buy the next house in the first place, but we just jumped, and did it.


What can I say? My husband might never forgive me for making us leave. We bought it out of foreclosure, and two of our old houses could fit inside. There were three full sized ovens in the kitchen once he had them installed. We built a second floor laundry room next to the expansive landing large enough for furniture of its own. There were so many windows there were windows in closets, inside the chimney, windows so huge I couldn't even lift them. The space...the space! The sledding hill in the front yard. The library in the hall, the attic that was so far removed from everything else we couldn't hear our children scream at each other. The front porch was screened in and was almost half a city block long. My husband removed snow from the 125 foot winding driveway with a shovel. We could watch the sun rise and set from the third floor, above all of the other buildings in the area. We had a breakfast room and, for the first time, a garage. We held parties for almost 100 people and somewhere down the line, we became known for those parties, which still surprises me. Our porch was a gathering place. We got married there, again--right there in our yard, with the sloping hill of an aisle and a place for every guest. Our children will remember that house as the beautiful one, the one that was a magical place to be a kid, the one with hiding places and enough room in the front yard to go long for a perfect spiral. But utopia doesn't exist, and death crept in there too, as I recovered from an amputation there and struggled through cancer again, and maybe even worse, chemo again. We turned 40 in that house when I wasn't sure if that was possible for me. When we left, my husband cried, my children cried, and I thought I would miss it forever, but I was wrong. I didn't cry and I didn't regret it, even if the rest of the family held it against me. It was a beautiful place to be alone in, to steal away from the world, but the world was always there, and we had to go.


This house is what we were looking for when we left 28 and stumbled upon 35. It is the same in many respects, but with an extra bedroom, a half bath on the main floor, a one car garage, central air and a playroom in the basement. There's a Harry Potter cupboard under the stairs, a bay window in my office, a beautiful yard in a town where those are hard to come by, red cabinets in the kitchen, an open front porch, and way too many problems to fix. It's too small I suppose and we haven't had our first party yet. My mother lives less than a mile away and our kids love the neighborhood and school to distraction. There are no more children to be born, no more milestones of our own to claim, at least not any that don't seem impossibly distant (like our 20 year anniversary or me turning 50. can you imagine? me? 50?). The coming milestones are all theirs: middle school and high school and turning 13 or 16, learning to drive, falling in love, finding themselves. We are so grown here we have nowhere else to go. The house is a house, not a symbol of itself. I find myself hoping I don't have cancer again, period, not hoping I don't have cancer here. My hope is that we are given the chance to leave this place on our own terms, as we have done before, because the kids are done with school and we don't need to be here anymore. I hope we leave together, because we have made it as a couple, because I have made it as a person.

I have moved us again and again and in truth it has been me, I have pushed us in and out of houses. If any of these walls could talk I cannot imagine what they would say, but I will say this: thank you, and I will always remember you and love you and the way you held us and let us go.

Happy new year, everyone. May you always feel at home.

Sunday, December 25, 2016

Day 2,295: Wise Men

Even after six and a half years, I look around and realize I am the youngest person in the waiting room. Women who are much sicker than me, which is most of them, since as far as we know, I might not be sick right now at all, still look at me with a mixture of pity and alarm. It is worse now that I don’t bother to bring my husband with me to my appointments, unless a mammogram is involved, in which case, he isn’t allowed to wait with my anyway. I am 41 years old and nowhere near young, but when sitting on a couch alone, hair so short it isn’t possible to tell if it’s on purpose or not, wearing a Stevie Ray Vaughan tshirt I’ve had for over a quarter century so it can’t qualify as ironic, waiting for the oncologist—and I am confronted, again, by people who regard me as someone who shouldn’t be there at all.

And so I am young, but only because I am in an environment where it is normal to be old, or at least aging. I am healthy, which is regarded with some measure of suspicion, as most in the room are not. I am impatient, while many around me would probably like to wait a while longer to hear the news they are there to hear. I know what is going to happen, and I am not nervous, though I probably should be.

I know that the oncologist will tell me that I look great, that I am doing everything right, and that I should enjoy the holidays with my family. I know that I should feel relief when his three minute exam shows that nothing is amiss. But I don’t feel relief. I don’t feel fear or dread either, because I don’t feel anything. I am not here to learn whether or not I have cancer. I know now that I am likely to discover any solid tumors myself, as I have done twice. I also know that if my cancer has metastasized and turned terminal, I would most likely be aware of it already before I showed up at the doctor’s office.

I know that I am doing this because even cancer is like life, with its obligations and rituals.

Before my oncologist arrives and we dance the dance we agreed on years ago, wherein he forgave me for knowing too much and I forgave him for not understanding that, a young resident arrives. I had been expecting the physician’s assistant I have known for the last six years, and I was oddly looking forward to the small talk.

This woman who arrived instead is young, much younger than me, perhaps in her late twenties. She seemed impossibly new at this. As she began interspersing her medical questions with questions about my life, I realized that someone must have taught her to do this. It seemed obvious that she didn’t really want to know about my recent move, my kids’ adjusting to their new school, the fact that my son hasn’t had night terrors in years, my husband’s new job or our plans for the holidays. She asked questions and I answered them but she didn’t want to know. It was easier for her to ask me about my medications (none), any illnesses or issues (none), irregular bleeding since that D&C three years ago (none), any worries at all? (none? Except that I have a fairly large probability of dying much younger than I should, which is something I’ve had to live with for years, so it doesn’t qualify as a worry anymore…but no one says that, because no one wants to hear that). I briefly wonder what it is about her demeanor that seems so…off…though she is perfectly polite and professional.

It hits me the way only crucial things do, all at once and in such blinding fashion that you are embarrassed you hadn’t thought of it before.

She sees me, and she sees the differences between herself and me, which makes the similarities more striking. She doesn’t have children, a husband, a house, she is working on starting her career, not trying to take a break from it (she tells me these things either directly or indirectly). She also, of course, doesn’t have cancer, once, twice, or otherwise. I have done some of the things she would like to do and a bunch of the things she would not. If I am me, a person who fifteen years ago was like her in many ways, she could be a person like me in the future. I am older than her but not old enough. And as has happened so many times before, I find myself sitting in an exam room, trying to make it easier for the other person on the other side of the table. I feel relieved for her when she leaves.

When my doctor comes in and does all of the things I know he will do in exactly the fashion I expect, I am out of words. I have nothing to ask him, nothing to tell him, except that now that I have moved, we are neighbors, which I know he doesn’t want to hear. Instead of a question or series of questions, I just say the thing that needs to be said:

“I know there’s nothing for me to do, one way or the other. Just keep plugging along.”

“That’s right. There’s nothing for you to do that you aren’t doing.”

There’s nothing we can do, he is saying. You will either be in the 70% of women who ultimately survive this or you will not. I cannot tell you which woman you are. And then, the words underneath the words he does not say:

And what if I could? What would you do differently?

I think about that as I leave, after I make the appointment for my mammogram, wherein I explain in a normal tone of voice, when asked, “so it’s just a right side image you need? Do you have a left breast?” that no, I do not, there is nothing there to image. I think, if I knew how this would turn out, when I was a child, as a young woman, before I had children, or even now, what would I do differently?

And I think I would probably have quit my steady job in an uncertain time, jumped into buying a house before we could get rid of the other one, moved my family, held onto a concert tshirt bearing the image of the man responsible for my first-born’s name, taken the el to the hospital, fidgeted in the waiting room out of pent-up energy rather than nervousness, accepted my own anger as either a character flaw or understandable response to all the rest of it, and, when called upon to say something meaningful, I would have looked at the younger version of myself who didn’t know what was coming, as she wrote notes about a slightly-older woman in a chart naming which cells had gone wrong, and said:

“After doing this for a while, it gets easier.”

On a day when many people think about birth and death and what comes in between, for one reason or another, I leave you with this. I would not have done anything differently, even had I known—especially had I known.

Merry Christmas, everyone.